Erotic Capital: A Sexual Free Market

Women! If you want to be popular and successful, learn to exploit your erotic capital. That’s right. Cash in on your assets. This is the crux of a recent book by Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. Her book, entitled Honey Money, carries the subtitle, “The world smiles at good-looking people, and they smile back”.

Hakim is no provocateur, as one might expect from a cursory glance at her book; she is a well-established sociologist with a string of publications to her name. Despite the racy title of Honey Money ­inspired by an expression employed by Jakarta prostitutes, “No money, no honey” – her book is a serious monologue, written in academese with extensive annotation, and laden with statistical evidence and appendices and tedious repetitions. However, I predict a surfeit of criticism headed in Hakim’s direction, for she sets out a thesis that appears to be purpose-built to stoke the fires of the opinionated. Her hypothesis is founded on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of forms of individual capital: monetary capital, human capital (intelligence gained by education) and social capital. She proposes an additional form: ‘erotic capital’. While, acknowledging that the term is not new – after all, it has been used by sociologists in the US to refer to physical appearance and sex appeal – she insists that her definition of it is wide enough to incorporate skills like charm, sociability and actual sexual expertise, making the term both original and instructive.

Hakim’s ‘erotic capital’ can be split into six categories:

  1. Beauty
  2. Sexual attractiveness
  3. Social skills (such as grace, charm and discreet flirtation)
  4. Liveliness (encompassing physical fitness, social energy and a good sense of humour)
  5. Social presentation (which includes dress, jewellery and other acessorisation)
  6. Sexuality (imagination, energy and competence)

Hakim allows that erotic capital can be deployed by both men and women but, due to the ‘male sex deficit’, men want sex much more than women, a “new social fact that social scientists have mostly sidestepped.” Given this ‘cultural reality’, she argues, women have more scope to exploit erotic capital. She writes:

“In sexualised, individualised modern societies, erotic capital is becoming more important and more valorised, for men and women. However, women have a longer tradition of developing and exploiting it.”

Woman, she argues, has had a glorious history of liveliness but has never been encouraged to exploit it:

“Patriarchal ideologies have systematically trivialised women’s erotic capital to discourage women from capitalising on it – at men’s expense.”

She adds:

“Unfortunately, radical feminists today reinforce patriarchal ‘moral’ objections to the deployment of erotic capital [and ] one reason why erotic capital has been overlooked is that the elite cannot monopolise it, so it is in their interest to belittle it and sideline it.”

Her thesis basically argues that femininity should be championed rather than abolished and that women should be encouraged to exploit men whenever they can. There are echoes here of a scene in The Simpsons where Lisa tells her grade school teacher that “good looks don’t really matter.” Ms Hoover replies, “Nonsense, that’s just something ugly people tell their children.” Irony aside, this really is the central premise of Hakim’s book: not only do looks matter; they should matter much more. As far as Hakim is concerned, the people who tell young people (especially young women) that their beauty and sex appeal are of little importance are ugly, morally, if not physically. She views it as an ‘unholy alliance’ between patriarchy, religious fundamentalism and radical feminism which have – in Anglo-Saxon countries in particular – acted to devalue ‘erotic capital’. In Hakim’s opinion, there should be a legitimate form of self-advancement available for all young women, and those who are without financial and intellectual benefits, in particular. She insists that they should get the best out of their assets. Sorry, pun unavoidable.

In some ways, Hakim has a point. Her book is oddly refreshing in the kind of way it recalls some of Arthur Schopenhauer’s notorious remarks in his essay ‘On Women’. Take, for instance, the following:

“With girls, Nature has had in view what is called in a dramatic sense a ‘striking effect’, for she endows them for a few years with a richness of beauty and a fullness of charm at the expense of the rest of their lives; so that they may during these years ensnare the fantasy of a man to such a degree as to make him rush into taking the honourable care of them, in some kind of form, for a lifetime – a step which would not seem sufficiently justified if he only considered the matter.”

If you know anything about Schopenhauer’s own experience with women, it is easy to see how he came to this view of women. He remained a bachelor all his life, visiting brothels on a regular basis. Hakim agrees with the philosopher’s description of the ‘striking effect’ of young women’s beauty and sex appeal. She goes to great length to prove that the ‘erotic capital’ of young women is greater than that of young men, providing a plethora of cross-cultural statistics; what her statistics also show is that women’s ‘erotic capital’ is always undervalued. Attractive young men get the better jobs and receive higher wages, for instance. As far as Hakim is concerned, while young women may possess considerable charms, male desire always surpasses supply. The antithesis is not the case: men are less attractive to and less desired by women, especially as women get older. Hakim continues to demonstrate how what she terms ‘the male sex-deficit’ underlies both the pervasiveness of female sexual imagery – in pornography and marketing – and the determined reluctance of society to assign value to female beauty.

Hakim argues that this depreciation of erotic capital was always going to be inevitable, not least because of the forces of dogmatic religion and male chauvinism, which have worked to diminish the impact of female sexuality. This has been particularly the case in Anglo Saxon societies, she says, arguing that we have less sex overall than they do in ‘less puritanical’ countries. She reduces our sexual relations to an interaction of push-me, pull-you; men wanting sex and women refusing it. According to Hakim, Christian monogamy is nothing more than a ‘political strategy’ devised by the patriarchy to make sure that even the least attractive and wealthy men find at least one sexual partner.

While this part of Honey Money may be reasonably non-contentious for feminists, Hakim is quite quick to condemn them. As far as she is concerned, the sexual revolution of the 1960s did little to empower women. She believes that the devaluation of female virginity and access to effective contraception, among other things, exposed women to further exploitation by men. The post-60s male theory became that women not only desired sex as much as them but that they were obliged to provide it  and for free (free from the obligation to support children, etc.) Hakim’s view is that the myth of ‘equality of desire’ is sanctioned by feminism, with devastating consequences; that is, the ‘medicalisation of low desire’ by which therapists repeatedly attempt to persuade women that their lack of sex-drive is a function of psychopathology instead of hormones. I am sure that there are many feminists who will accuse Hakim of essentialism but she is pre-emptive and accuses feminism of the same.

Recognising that she has made some interesting points throughout the course of her analysis, I am also aware of massive problem in her thesis. The most destructive aspect of her argument is her proposed solution, which is nothing less than the legalisation of prostitution and other ‘sex work’. Schopenhauer would undoubtedly applaud her but I do not. My inability to agree with her is also owing to factors like her unconvincing reading of Catherine Millet’s memoir of sexual addiction as a story of female empowerment, her praise of the French for their (alleged) toleration of extramarital affairs, not to mention her claim that Richard Branson has ‘erotic capital’.

I think she makes a valid point about the hypocrisies implicit in contemporary feminism’s attack on female ‘erotic capital’. In addition, it would be difficult to argue against her views on patriarchal attitudes to women. But by suggesting that the ‘sex deficit’ can be made good by way of prostitution, Hakim exposes the neo-liberal mathematics of her book. Cue Marx.

So, what has the reaction to Hakim’s thesis been?

Zoe Williams, of the Guardian expressed unease with the underlying notion of a ‘male sex deficit’:

“This area is culturally quite freighted. There are certain expectations, going back centuries, of male sexuality being rampant and ungovernable, and equal and opposite expectations of female sexuality. This might – call me crazy – impact upon the way that men and women report, express and prosecute their sexual desire.”

Writing for the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was similarly unimpressed:

 “In sum, her thesis: men want sex more than do women after the age of 30. That testosterone-fuelled desperation needs to be mined and exploited and to do that females must become lifelong geishas, ceaselessly prettify themselves… and bargain cunningly with men.”

She concludes:

 “This may mark the arrival of redtop sociology. Perhaps they should put Hakim on Celebrity Big Brother.”

However, Hakim found support at the Daily Telegraph in the form of writer Bryony Gordon, who claims that the sociologist is “absolutely right; more than that – her book should be read out to young girls as part of the national curriculum.” She adds:

 “I am sick of women feeling they have to do themselves down and wear their body issues as some badge of honour… If that’s feminism, then count me out.”

Another fan is Sarah Vine, writer for The Times, who found Hakim’s attack on feminist Sheila Jeffreys to be ‘refreshingly stern’. She writes:

 “It might appear that [Hakim] is harking back to old-fashioned views of femininity. In fact her ideas are the most modern of modern: to show women how to reclaim these aspects of themselves rather than denying or subjugating them.”

As for the US, not much has been said but the book is not due to be released in America until March. However, responding to an article in the March 2010 edition of Prospect, in which Hakim tested her idea, Jezebel published the following headline: ‘3 Reasons Why ‘Erotic Capital’ is Bullshit’. Backing away slowly…

What are your opinions? Is exploiting ‘erotic capital’ the way forward? How correct is it to say that there are no ugly women, only lazy ones?

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Categories: Business, Multiculturalism, People

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at www.animadvert.co.uk. Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

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8 Comments on “Erotic Capital: A Sexual Free Market”

  1. James Hill
    August 29, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    “While this part of Honey Money may be reasonably non-contentious for feminists, Hakim is quite quick to condemn them. As far as she is concerned, the sexual revolution of the 1960s did little to empower women. She believes that the devaluation of female virginity and access to effective contraception, among other things, exposed women to further exploitation by men”

    Women have always been able to take advantage of their “erotic capital,” but prior to the sexual revolution that advantage came in the form of securing a wealthy, powerful man to father her children. Don’t forget, the costs associated with sex have always been higher for women: she is ultimately the one saddled with the burden of raising the child and therefore evolutionary pressures require her to be more selective in choosing a mate.

    So it’s only in the context of a post sexual revolution society that we could even be having this discussion: it’s only after the introduction of birth control and the devaluation of female virginity that a woman would be able to use her erotic capital for short term gains without ruining her long term future.

    Sex has already been turned into a commodity by businesses. Porn is a booming business and sexual imagery is used to sell everything from car races to coca cola, so society really has very little moral authority to try and deny individual woman the right to sell their own sexuality. But is it a wise or healthy thing for any person (woman or man) to do? I would argue that it is not. For the vast majority of people sex isn’t just another human activity but occupies a special place of importance. For many people, and for many women in particular, sex is an intimate, bonding experience. In turning sex and sexuality into something to be traded and exchanged for advantage, one runs the risk of devaluing the experience entirely. Still, that is not my decision to make for anyone but myself. If grown men and women want to sell their sex appeal or their bodies for money or for a competitive advantage, it’s not my place to tell them no. I suspect the experience will leave them unfulfilled in the long run though.

  2. August 30, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    I look forward to reading your articles Mary-Ellen, this is no exception. Great work. The part “Sorry, pun unavoidable.” made me chuckle.

    I find that I am agreeing with almost all of Hakim’s observations but disagreeing with almost all of her conclusions. I too have noticed the unholy alliance of conversative sexual values and feminism: the “if women can’t be free then we’ll bring about equality by trapping men in the same mind forged manacles” approach.

    I find myself agreeding with James Hill, women have always exploited their erotic potential and the mistake I think Hakim is making is not realising how important prestige is to men. Women, in my experience, generally don’t comprehend how important saving face is to men and constantly ruffle men’s feathers in ways men are careful to avoid doing to each other. I think women fail to realise just how sophisticated men are socially because they can’t see many aspects of male social interaction or they just seems pointless to women so they assume women are superior to men socially. By failing to take this into account I believe Hakim will fail to see many of her observations play into the conclusions to she thinks they will.

    In short: men just aren’t that simple and women aren’t behind on this game.

  3. September 1, 2011 at 1:54 am #

    By promoting “erotic capital,” Hakim is just reinforcing our culturally accepted norms: that women are just sex toys in a big boy’s playground.Also, I would disagree to Hakim’s statement that men are more sexual than women. It is culturaly acceptable for men to talk about masturbation, etc, but for women, it is considered “slutty” and “shameful” to boast about such endevours.

    Yes, there is a demand for “erotic capital,” but encouraging young women to “cash in” does not promote their well-being in the long-run. This is especially true for these women who do not fit the beauty ideals of today–very young, thin and, often, white.

  4. September 1, 2011 at 4:00 am #

    Where are the men who boast about masturbation? I’ve yet to meet one! Men might joke about masturbation, usually in reference to other people, but surely to boast about ones own masturbation is counterpart to admitting that one can’t find someone to have sex with them, not even out of pity. Bless them!!

    I think, on one hand, you are quite correct, Laura, when you say that a reinforcement of womens’ erotic capital is positing women as sex toys in a male playing field. On the other hand, however, Hakim is positing men as the sex objects to be toyed with (as they are simply so desperate for it – her claim, not mine… Can’t say I find an ‘easy’ man much of an appeal, career advancement or no).

    I think Hakim misses a point, though. Women don’t have to cash in. They don’t have to actively pursue their erotic capital, especially if – as you rightfully point out – they are very young, thin, and (often) white. Simply being is somehow often enough.

    Like you, Jason, I cannot deny most of Hakim’s observations; God knows she presents enough statistics to bolster them, but the conclusion is positively questionable; it presents a double bind – freedom of women / ensnarement of men.

    And you make a most valid point, James. Women have always been able to exploit their erotic potential; I mean, look at the story of Adam and Eve… If that was the beginning, then a flutter of the eyelashes (and a naked body) has always been all it takes.

    I simply find Hakim’s thesis fun to play with… not as much fun as men can be, though!

  5. September 2, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    I think I missworded what I meant here about men and masturbation. It is more culturally acceptable, and considered a right of passage even, for men to masturbate. It’s looked on as more shameful and perverse for women to masturbate.

    True, Hakim might be positioning men as sex objects–but, how much power does this really give women? Men still hold more upper-level positions than women, and normalizing erotic captial puts an expection on women to make sexual advances even if they are would rather not.

    I think most of us our knowledgeable that women have erotic captial. The thing I find troubling about Hakim’s thinking is that women should be taught to use it in order to succeed.

  6. September 2, 2011 at 12:59 am #

    On the first score, I totally concur with your elucidation and clarification. Although, in the post-Sex And The City age, it’s not quite so perverse or unacceptable for a woman to discuss the issue – it has been popularised to a certain degree! The gendered difference in masturbation activity is something that is deeply seated, though, and is due to so many socio-historic factors which will probably not vanish overnight.

    I agree with you on the pressure that some women might feel under due to this ‘normalisation’ of erotic capital. From my own personal experience, and from talking to female friends, however, it seems unlikely that it would ever need to be employed. More common are the pressures of harrassment; career advancement being offered in return for sexual favours, etc. I think we might prefer to abolish sexual capital. Young career women are often seen as fodder for the older established desperado-types.

    I totally agree with your final comment; all Hakim is doing, which I underscored in the course of the article, is arguing for a kind of prostitution. Women’s accomplishments and capabilities become worthless in such an equation.

  7. September 2, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Well I agree in that women are only going to diminish there power more by being sexually provocative, I mean c’mon guys thats a man implanted statement well some women too , but only so they can ride the coat tails of some licentious business man who gets his money through a savage power play market providing system, the lesses get the scraps the real men earning bread and mead and the honest women that love them are the real winners, and ya know it looks like it’s going to be up to the women to remain virtuos, lest they you know temp the heart of an honest oppS typo there, dishonest thats better man.I mean thats been around since Jehova’s time its so ancient its biblcal, to even mention it to the women of today well, youd have to be brave if you think your gonna survive the future with that attitude, so it looks like that gorgeous young business or not savvy women of today are going to have to remain virtuos if there male counterpart is going to survive in the age thats just around the bend, and yes we already are God realised men and women, so look out when the babies start talking to you at 2 months already!

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